Sargent's solutions

Any request from a potential client for a 100 per cent clean and tidy job should set alarm bells ringing, Alan Sargent warns

I usually follow my instincts when dealing with potential customers. I have one enquiry from a property owner living at a very exclusive development concerning cutting an established beech hedge. The house is on an expensive gated estate and I would like to get more work from the various owners. However, my concern is that the customer is insisting on a 100 per cent clean and tidy job, with no cut leaves left behind. What would you advise?

I am pleased to hear that you have alarm bells on this enquiry. Having taken the liberty of replying to your query personally and before you tendered for the work, I know that you were wise to have concerns.

In fairness to many owners, the term "100 per cent tidy" simply means that they want to have the rubbish cleared after the job and not have the site left in a messy condition. They do not actually mean 100 per cent - just make sure you tidy up behind you on completion. However...

I can think of three true cases where the clients could be referred to as "professional non-payers".

They had absolutely no intention of paying for works contracted and made sure that they dealt with small companies that were unlikely to be able to afford to become involved in legal battles, or well-known firms that would not relish bad publicity.

The first case involved a house owner ringing the manager of a turf company asking whether they would arrange to have "the perfect lawn" laid to their rear garden. The site was in a very exclusive development, with no inkling of payment being an issue. The lawn was prepared by a reputable contractor. The finest-quality turf was selected to suit the site conditions and supplied by the turf company. All payments were to be made to the landscape contractor, although the enquiry originated via the supplier.

Despite the fact that the job would have been described by any reasonable person as an excellent scheme, the owner claimed that the lawn was "not perfect" because the turf had not knitted and some of the grass blades were higher than others. The owner also raised a number of other ridiculously petty objections and refused to pay. I regret to say that the turf supplier and landscape contractor did not pursue payment due to the status of the "client".

Precise stipulation

The second tale is a very common problem encountered by contractors who do not stipulate and specify precise information when asked to level a lawn area. To contractors, the term "level" means smooth, fine tilth, proper preparation etc. To some clients, it means precisely that.

Most contractors do not get caught a second time when writing up quotations, but too many still walk straight into problems and expense because they had not imagined that customers did not share their definition of "level". The term should be "grade to running levels and falls" or similar wording, meaning a pre-turfing finish allowing for various fixed points, such as paving or tree trunks set at differing heights.

Although I have many other cautionary tales, the final story is still difficult to comprehend. Even years later, I remain bewildered by the logic of some people. A large garden in a south coast town had a butyl liner pool, arranged and planted in Japanese style. The scheme was several years old and the plants were well established.

During building works at the neighbouring property, a scaffolder had dropped a pole that managed to slide, javelin style, into the pool thereby puncturing the liner. The company agreed to repair the damage without hesitation or quibble. They had not envisaged dealing with anyone quite so pedantic as the pool owner.

As an independent consultant I was called in by the owner's solicitors to arrange all specification and documentation to ensure that the pool liner was replaced and the whole garden area surrounding the pool returned to its original condition before the accident damage. Put simply, they wanted each plant photographed, catalogued, measured and orientated so that each could be removed from site, cared for in a suitable nursery and replaced in exactly the same position and dimension as though nothing had ever happened.

Incredible expectation

Quite apart from the incredible expectation that I could somehow arrange for the plants to stop growing/flowering during their off-site "holiday", and the impossibility of managing the owner's commands, I felt sure that no court would ever demand that their builder's insurance company settle such an unreasonable claim.

My instructions from the solicitors were clear. I could charge whatever fee I wished because it would be added to the claim and paid only on satisfactory completion of my part in the operation. I have to say that the terms in which the commission was couched sounded very reasonable. "Challenging, exciting, different and rewarding," were the words used by the owner. A most unusual and exclusive project to add to my portfolio.

If you have any doubts at all regarding the intentions of a potential customer, step back a few paces and consider the implications for your business. Are they simply using layman's terms or is there a hidden agenda?

One common denominator in these stories is the challenge posed by the customer, with the unspoken inference that only a serious and competent person would be asked to quote for these very special jobs. Can you handle the challenge?

Alan Sargent is an independent gardens consultant at the School of Garden Management

- See


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